Removing Classical IT Thinking from your Organization

We are getting better. I need to remind myself of that. I need to take a deep breath, and remind myself that we have less classical IT thinking in our organization today than yesterday, and much less yesterday than two years ago.

So what the heck is “classical IT thinking?” Essentially, it is when all or part of the IT group make decisions that protects or optimizes systems instead of the people who are using the system/service.

Student satisfaction is down, but take heart, portal usage is up!

When I arrived at Armstrong, they were in the midst of implementing a new portal. This new portal would be a one stop shop for all of our students’ needs. Sounds great, I’m on board.

You will use the portal, and you will LIKE IT!

You will use the portal, and you will LIKE IT!

However, to ensure that students would go to the portal, the only way students could check their email (we are a Google campus) was to log in to the portal. STUDENTS COULD NOT CHECK THEIR EMAIL WITH THEIR SMART PHONES. Forgive me for shouting, but c’mon, people, c’mon. First, we know that many students are abandoning email in favor of texting, and we know that they carry phones everywhere. And we want them to check their email for class information and general campus information.

Being new and given that I prefer to influence rather than mandate wherever possible, I began a Socratic process of working with the implementation team on the rationale behind this. Quickly, people realized that this wasn’t in the best interests of our students or Armstrong. The initial rationale was that we wanted the system to be successful, and this came slightly behind the success of the student. Classical IT Thinking.

But we might run out…

Before we begin, and I start scaring you, let me give you the ending: it all worked out.

We rolled out a new wireless system for our campus and increased coverage to our gorgeous green spaces and athletic fields, increased ability to handle growing device density (i.e., people connecting their iPhones, iPads, and laptops all at once), and save 30% on maintenance costs to boot!

Almost a win. So close…

Apparently, we were worried about running out of IP addresses, so we had the students have to log back in to the network. Every. Twenty. Minutes. Now, people are used to the home or Starbucks experience, where you log in and then you are good to go. We look fairly silly by not trying to duplicate this experience.

The students all perceived this as a service outage, not a normal part of wireless experience. I went on a “house calls” visit to residence halls recently, and students were up beat and happy. When I asked about wireless, their faces fell, and I began to hear the frustration.

What scarcity or resource over-consumption were we protecting against? We have a full class A range, so we have over 16 million addresses available. Let’s assume that every faculty, staff, and student has 5 devices at the peak of our enrollment and staffing levels. This would be about 45,000 ip addresses taken. Okay, lets add in a generous allowance for sensor building controls, and guests, etc. I’ll just round up to 100k. Wait, for capacity planning sake, I’ll assume that in the next three years we will match Arizona State’s 60k students with the fac/staff/buildings increasing in similar ratios. Now we are up to about 500,000 IP addresses needed.

Now I’m not a networking whiz, but some rough calculations tell me that it may be unnecessary to degrade the student wireless experience so we can keep (with grandiose plans) 15.5 million IP numbers on reserve. (Yes, I know that there are subnets and networking complexities that reduce that number; however, the main point remains that we were providing a disservice to our students over a fictional scarcity.)

Breaking the Cycle

The first step is not to blame or shame the people involved in classical IT thinking. Somehow this was engrained in their careers early on and perpetuated by the culture within IT and the institution. This is not a time for thunderous finger pointing, where people get defensive and close up, but a time where we can permanently change culture by being tough on the problem not on the people.

My first master’s was in organizational change, so we tackled this issue from that perspective rather than a technology perspective. Why was this mindset in place, and what mindset/culture did we want to be here instead?

Many IT organizations have grown up embedded under various units and have been relegated to a cost center status. IT is expensive, and it is precisely because it is so expensive that the IT leadership (not just the CIO) needs to be plugged into the what’s and why’s of campus. The IT staff thought their job was to implement the portal and have everyone use it and to ensure that the IP ranges were in no danger of being exhausted. There was little to no context of “why?” How does this affect the student experience? Does this have an impact on enrollment or retention?

What did we do?

1. Connect people to the mission of the university, which will put the IT part in context.

One of my primary goals in my first six months was to quiz my direct reports on the university’s strategic goals. What are the enrollment figures? Retention? How can IT help support all of these things? Once we began a conversation that tied them into the real reason we are here, many of the classical IT thinking traps went away. We began to have discussions about the on-boarding process for students, faculty, and staff. We can partner with HR to make the experience of becoming a Pirate (we’re the Pirates, by the way) to be a positive one. Hear that? We can influence campus culture and impact people’s first impression of the campus with the way we design, implement, and support services. That’s pretty powerful, and it engages people.

In all-staff meetings, I gave away Starbucks or iTunes gift cards to staff who knew what was going on in the university around them. We made it fun, or at least I had fun doing it, and the staff probably had some fun at my expense when I was being hokey doing it. Laughter is okay, and it can make the learning process more enjoyable (and make the learning stick better too!)

2. Continuous Improvement Approaches: Six Sigma and Design Thinking

I have seen and experienced organizations that care more about the process than the outcome, but a good continuous improvement program focuses on both.

To help with ensuring that we are managing processes, we have begun a lean six sigma program whereby all directors worked to earn their green belt and all staff will have a yellow belt by the end of 2014. We’re not likely to do the heavy statistics portion or spend the time to finely measure the before state, but knowing and thinking in terms of a value stream map or understanding forms of waste (defects, overproduction, inventory, over-processing, motion, transport/handling, and waiting) can help with re-engineering services.

However, the biggest impact that we’ve seen was an exercise in Design Thinking. I had some of my former colleagues from Miami University’s AIMS come down to give us a workshop. People generally enjoyed this much better than the lean six sigma approach (perhaps because there was no use of Minitab?). The design thinking approach starts with observation, empathy and understanding what the “customer” wants. This empathetic bond created outside of the transactional context is powerful. What do customers really want during the transactiodtn and afterwards? What elements can we design to make that happen?  By analyzing the context around the service and transaction, you get to use creativity to develop solutions. Given the relationship nature a university has with its faculty, staff, and students, we do want to create a feeling that goes with our campus experience. We want our services to be efficient, yield good results, and also create a feeling of welcome for our students, faculty, and staff.

By the way, for both six sigma and design thinking we invited staff from all over campus, and it was a great way for us to share with other service areas and develop relationships. Of particular value was that many from enrollment service areas went to both six sigma and design thinking, and we wound up collaborating to come up with some excellent improvements to our admissions and financial aid processes because of these engagements. And great relationships. Let me say that one more time: great relationships.

Wrapping it up

People want to be engaged and know their work has meaning, particularly in IT where something that is brand new and innovative may be old hat in 5 years. If we are on this cycle of churn, then helping to connect people to the institution’s mission and giving people tools will help with that engagement. And, it will help significantly reduce classical IT thinking.

Most importantly, it will help ensure that IT enables students, faculty, and staff to do their work with fewer frustrations!


IT Doublespeak for the Unintiated: Complete v. Done

We’ve been working on our Enrollment Management (EM) processes here at Armstrong, and I’m delighted to say that while we are not done, we are in a much better place than a year ago. Many of the issues we faced were around processes that hadn’t been updated or questioned since they were put in place about 15 years ago. Correlated was the lack of continuing education for staff to keep abreast of current practices in EM and the technology advances.

The highs and lows of this undertaking are for another posting, but in the midst of this we’ve had some interesting conversations among president’s cabinet members. The conversations have been around when something is “done.”

Consider this conversation a process of IT and institutional maturation as we learn to be a planned and proactive institution. Also, this has been a process of learning how to engage and do things as partners rather than the unsuccessful approach of IT as short order cooks. This leads to much better satisfaction and outcomes for everyone.

In a nutshell

The crux of the discussion was that IT was calling a project complete when the functional outcome wasn’t achieved. Both are correct, and that isn’t very satsifying. To be successful, the business units and the IT units need to manage engagement and expectation.

You: Aaarg! You IT rabble are playing doublespeak again. (sigh). 

Me: At least there were no acronyms. That means we are getting better, right?

You:  (Hey! I can’t print that…this is a family oriented blog)

Over-simplified version

Complete=the technical deliverables have been met, and IT thinks that it is ready for testing by the client.

Done=the clients have tested and affirmed that the solution meets the desired outcome/specification.

Many times there is an iterative cycle before reaching “done.”

Here is a picture.

Slide1But wait, there is an analogy too.

You have taken some pants to a tailor to be hemmed. The tailor measures, and you leave with an idea of when the pants will be ready and the cost. The tailor does his thing and hems the pants. (complete)

You still need to come back and try on the pants to make sure that the work is done to your specification/satisfaction. If you never pick up the pants, the tailor has still completed the work. If you pick up the pants but never wear them, then the tailor has still completed the work.

If the new hem is too short/long, then the tailor will have to make adjustments. (Too many of these iterations and you will know you’ve got a bad tailor and won’t trust him with your pants anymore!)

If you decide you want a cuff, then that is new work and the tailor must do more work. (Too many of these new requests on the same dime, and your tailor will realize he’s got a bad client!)

Once the tailor has finished and you are satisfied with the pants, then you are both done for this engagement. (done) Enjoy your pants.

Caution: pitfalls all along the way.
1) Bad specifications=bad output.
2) Shoddy IT work=burdensome testing cycle for clients and delays in achieving outcome.
3) No client testing=outcomes not achieved and IT in a hostage situation not able to cross project off list.
4) Feature creep/nibbling for extras= this can add delays to getting to other work. It happens but should be managed through good original specifications and joint prioritization of overall portfolio of requests.
5) Finished product that works, but no one uses in favor of the old way=waste and unachieved outcomes
While 1-4 are quite common, #5 scares me most of all, which is why outside of the technical components of an implementation, the training and organizational change components must be accounted for (think Lewin: unfreeze, change, freeze).
The worst situation is to have spent resources developing something miraculous that will help out students and also the staff delivering a service only to have it not be used because you spent resources developing the technology and not the people side. Again, a topic for another post.

The Takeaway

Clearly communication plays a vital role in reducing the risk for the pitfalls mentioned, and these outcomes require joint participation throughout. Please make sure to manage engagement and expectations to get better, more satisfying, outcomes!

Congratulations! You are now initiated.


IT Mission and Vision

Here is my take on the mission and vision for IT at a university. It’s not about the technology…it is about what the technology can enable. In the IT arena world most define our means of getting things done as people, process, and technology. All are important, but I’ve bet my career on fundamentally understanding the people part of that equation. Technology will change rapidly; processes will need to shift to meet different outcomes; however, people’s basic needs are foundational to all of this and the most stable. I think I’ve made a good bet. Robert

Vision for IT

We help people reach their fullest potential by helping
them use technology to connect with others, discover knowledge,
express ideas, and transform our daily lives.

Mission of IT

We are committed to providing excellent technology services and creating an environment for success for the students, faculty, and staff by…

… creating a culture of exceptional service that leads to student success while advancing scholarship and research

… providing leadership and support so our constituents may best use technology to reach their goals

… focusing on outcomes and seeking to eliminate inefficient processes

… being excellent stewards of resources of money, staff time, and the environment

… endeavoring to improve communication, services, and relationships

… innovating and adapting so as to meet the ever-changing needs of our constituents

5 Lessons from my Mother’s Life

From my last post, you will remember my Mom passed away last year. As the sharpest edges of mourning lessen even slightly, I’ve had some opportunity to reflect about my Mom and things I’ve learned from her. This post will likely grow over time as I have time and energy to look through the past in a meaningful way. Here is eight months worth of reflection.

Live your priorities

My Mom wanted everyone around her to reach their full potential, and she was willing to sacrifice to help. Sacrifice can take many forms. In some cases it was monetary. She and Dad didn’t always have the newest car. They bought new and drove it for 10+ years before trading in. However, she invested in my education. That was more important to her than creature comforts.

One very simple exercise we did in graduate school was to make a top 10 sort of list of what we valued most. Then we logged our activities for a week. It’s amazing that I wrote that exercising and reading was a big priority, but that I spent way more time watching TV than exercising or reading. We got rid of cable that month.

How you spend your time and money will show what you value more than what you say or think your priorities are. Don’t go through life fooling yourself.

Be courageous enough to give honest feedback and hold people accountable for their best

My Mom also sacrificed the “easy” path. She was willing to take on hard topics even when it would’ve been easier to let them slide. She held those she cared about accountable for their actions when they were against their stated goals. This is not to say she was an inscrutable nit-picker (although it sure felt like it when I was 18). She just wanted everyone to reach their full potential and where she had influence she would let you know if you were on or off that path.

My Mom had extremely high standards for me. I can remember when I dreaded going home with a “B” on a report card (and this means I faced a fair amount of dread). But, Mom knew what I was capable of, and she held me accountable for it.

This was also evidenced in making peace between those for whom she cared. I worked with my Dad in his electrical and general contracting business summers in high school. I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it now, but back then it was a rough go for me and my Dad. Sometimes we would argue, but usually about the time we pulled into the neighborhood we would reach a cease fire agreement so we wouldn’t get Mom involved. Mind you, we were still mad, but we thought we could fake Mom out. Um. Yeah. Right.

Typically, she was on to us in about 5 seconds. Dad and I tried to sweep things under the carpet, but she had none of that. We dealt with the core issue, and then peace and understanding were real.

In the work environment, I’ve observed and inherited staff and organizations that had done a lot of sweeping under the carpet. It was easier for a manager to ignore a problem and work around an individual than to address the challenge. I can’t and won’t claim 100% success rate with identifying and correcting this serious organizational problem, but I can say that I worked diligently at it and never turned a blind eye to an ongoing problem of which I became aware. From my experience, you can’t have a high performing team or organization if there is a lack of uniform expectations and accountability.

Praise people when they get it right, encourage them when they slip

This seems pretty obvious but is often overlooked. When people do right things, let them know it. It will give them the right kind of pride, and it will reinforce what success looks like. Many people slog through life attempting “success” without really knowing what it looks or feels like.

Show ’em. Tell ’em. Put the spotlight on it.

In a work or team environment, praising helps others see how things should be too. Again, be uniform, because uneven praise can give a sense of unfairness, and nobody likes that.

But all of us– the average and the excellent–will make a bad choice here or there or have a slump season. Encourage their way out of that. In the Sacred Hoops book by Phil Jackson, he discussed when a player missed a key shot, their teams philosophy was to give that player the ball more not less. If you goof something, then avoid it, there are some serious mental calculus happening that will create an artificial obstacle to success. If you are a parent, manager, or coach, then get your person in the game again quickly. If they were good enough to get hired or make the team, then they have the potential. If you’re a parent, then it’s your DNA and conditioning you are seeing before you.

My Mom always made it clear to me when I was doing something right, and I enjoyed that praise. When I fell short, there were consequences, but overall there was assistance getting back to a a right place.

Control what you can control, accept what you can’t

The above lessons are positive and places where my Mom got things mostly right in my opinion. Here we take a different turn, and look at where I saw my Mom struggle. Basically, my Mom for most of her life had the Serenity Prayer backwards. Here it is if you’ve never heard it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My Mom worried if a strange bruise might be leukemia; she never flew because she thought the plane would go down; she thought that a sniffle was pneumonia.

And yet…she didn’t exercise. She didn’t control her diet. She missed out on things and didn’t feel her best while she was alive

We went round and round about this. And, it’s pretty painful to write about this after she is gone, but if anyone can benefit from this perspective, it is worth my reflective pain. I can also proudly add that in the last couple of years of her life, she got this right.

She didn’t die in a plane crash nor was the bruise leukemia. She died from a freak, out-of-the-blue autoimmune disease that attacked her lungs. She had no control over this. So, all that worry meant that she missed out on things and not controlling some things that would’ve given her a better quality of life while she was living.

There is a great Bible verse that hits this. Regardless of your religious background, there is wisdom here.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

Psalms 90:12

Life is in itself a mortal condition. Spend your life living it wisely rather than worrying about dieing.

Help others, but look after yourself too

My Mom lived to help my Dad and me shine, almost to a fault. Even now we discover little areas where Mom smoothed things over that we had no idea that she was doing and yet took for granted. Some may argue that this is part of being a mom and wife (and it’s an equally corresponding part of being a dad and a husband, but this post is about my Mom).

When I left high school and was a nascent adult, I thought my Mom was too much in my business. I, rather harshly, told her she needed a hobby, and it shouldn’t be me. Now that I have kids, I realize how silly that is. They will never be too old or too secure for me not to spend time worrying or caring about their lives. And, while I am an involved Dad and love my children more than I could have ever realized, it is my opinion– based on no fact– that a mother’s love is just different than a dad’s love. Not better or worse. Just different. So it’s easy to see how that selfless love could come at personal neglect.

My first comment about prioritizing lives and driving old cars to spend the money elsewhere is not what I’m talking about here. There is a level of personal investment that, again in my opinion, one should never give up. Continue finding areas to personally grow and where you can retain a sense of self.

As you feel that pride of accomplishment and reaching your own potential, it gives you energy to also give out to others. I must face the reality that, while my Mom helped me reach my potential, she never quite reached her full potential. When she was diagnosed with her condition of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she took back some of her life. She dieted; she exercised; she bought new clothes; she went out and had fun. She faced her fear of the computer and got on Facebook. She learned to Skype (to see the grand kids). She lived well, and she would always say that 2010 was the best year of her life.

My Mom spent her life trying to give me the tools and opportunity to be the best person I could be, and I think she would be happy that she is still able to provide those tools even after she is gone. Thank you, Mom.

Trick or Treat? Death by Powerpoint….

I wanted to have some fun at work and in my class, so here’s my ode to bad meetings!

The Grim PPTer

And here’s what is says on my scythe and the handouts. Today I have a meeting with our IT Strategic Advisory council, which includes our Provost, CFO, other VPs and several deans. Funny thing is that I bet there will be at least 3 PowerPoint slide decks used. Hope they don’t make any Death by PowerPoint mistakes, because I’ll be there to get them if they do! mwuahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Happy Halloween! Let me know if I missed any PowerPoint or other presentation travesties!

Click the's easier to read that way.

5 Steps Towards Creating an Innovation Culture at a University

Our president here at Miami University, David Hodge, gave his annual address titled “A Culture of Entrepreneurial Spirit” on September 29th this year. It was a good speech, balancing an honest view of the challenges we face with a positive attitude that we will overcome them and be better for it, and how we’re going about tackling some of the challenges. Read it for yourself on his website. It’s worth the time.

In it he discusses the benefits of an entrepreneurial approach and how this impacts culture. This embodies looking at innovative ways to do things like doing new things for the same amount of resources spent, decreasing frustration with existing processes, etc. And, of course, bringing in more revenue is never bad. This general approach can increase your competitive advantage by considering different ways of doing things, and give you better outcomes, which for us is mostly defined by attracting great students and producing excellent, successful graduates.

So the big guy says this is a strategic direction for us. How do we make it happen? I started looking around for models on implementing innovation, and came across one outlined by Desouza, et. al. (2009). Their representation of the innovation process is pictured below.

The Innovation Process (Desouza, et. al. 2009)

In reviewing their model (idea generation & mobilization>advocacy & screening>experimentation>commercialization>diffusion & implementation), it became clear that there are things we must do if we want to create an environment in which innovation thrives. Here’s my take on five things we need to do. There are more, but these stood out as key levers to get us going towards an entrepreneurial culture, so that anyone can be innovative wherever they are on an org chart.

Step 1: Reduce bureaucracy

(key in all phases, but particularly in idea generation and advocacy)

Entrepreneurs and innovators do new and different things. Sometimes they are in line with existing practices, but many times the new thing is contrary to the status quo. Innovation is creativity with a vector. These ideas and practices may break existing rules or at least push them hard enough to give them a good blister. The university is a wonderful environment, but from my vantage point, outside of the direct academic pursuits of teaching and research, there is process and policy inertia that must be overcome to give innovators room to flourish.

Stuck in the mud

Is this your idea?

We have incredibly bright people who generate great ideas. I wonder how many great ideas lay fallow and unrealized, because people don’t know what to do with them?  Other times, when ideas actually get surfaced, we bog them down between the powerful pincers of process and policy.  Over time it’s not just the ideas we lose, we significantly reduce individuals desire to bring forward those ideas. Think about it. If you are continually told no, or worse, reprimanded for trying different things, then you’re going to stop. We seek rewards and avoid pain, which is our survival instinct kicking in. If it happens enough it will become the culture. How many times have you heard, “It won’t work. We tried that before.”

As leaders, can we help people get their ideas off the ground and give them some help to move it to the next phase or empower them to take steps locally? Are you comfortable getting uncomfortable? Do you value the process or the outcome more?

Step 2: Understand and manage the balance between risk and business value

(key in  Advocacy and Screening Phase and Commercialization)

We are generally risk averse, and many times I hear “why should we do this?” instead of “why shouldn’t we do this?” Now, I’m NOT saying that we should accept every risk, but I think many times we don’t understand the risk of doing or not doing something in terms of financial or strategic consequences. Status quo is typically an easier path at a university, and climbing the hill to get beyond this can be pretty steep.

In the past I’ve been frustrated by legal counsel regarding implementing new initiatives, but recently I had a moment of clarity to understand my perceived problem. Legal counsel is a wonderful partner in understanding the liability and risk side of the equation, but it isn’t necessarily their job to present the business value side of the equation. If you have a strong case on the liability side with little to no real definition or quantification of the business side, the resulting trend towards risk aversion is completely understandable. But never forget maintaining status quo has its own risk.

Oh, and the earlier you bring in those who represent mitigating the risk side of your effort, the more likely you are to wind up with a successful end with loads less frustration on all sides. Managing risk and surprises are not happy companions.

Can we reduce the effort to challenge the status quo and create risk profiles across different areas? Can we do a better job of defining the business value for things that insert risk, so we can do a better job balancing risk and value?

Step 3: Learn from failures. They are an inevitable part of the innovation process.

(key in Experimentation Phase)

One key element of entrepreneurship and innovation is accepting failures and learning from them. We’re not talking failure from lack of trying or patent neglect of duties. Those are performance management issues. However, even with much brilliance and energy, not every idea is going to be a winner, and winning ideas won’t be executed successfully every time. You need to understand where the failure occurred and why. With resiliency, tenacity, whatever word you want to use, innovators need to know how to bounce back from failure. Should you go at it again with a different approach?  Were the resources right? Was it just bad timing? Has something in the environment changed to make the timing better?

As you gain understanding of the problem you are solving and there is a mismatch between it and the solution you are engineering, you may have to kill and start over or recast your original idea and change mid-stream? In the start-up world, this is called a “pivot.” You have to be careful not to fall in love with an idea because sometimes you have to pull the plug on them for various reasons. This agility is key to coming up with repeatable successes.

Another thing to consider as you learn from mistakes is diversity. Did you get enough input? Was that input from people who will use the innovation? Was it from people who think differently than you do and/or come from different backgrounds and perspectives? Strengthen an initial idea with opinions. Even if you disagree and choose to maintain your specific vision à la Steve Jobs, you will have heard what critics may say.

twitter fail whale blowfishFailures can be beautiful

Do you bury failures as quickly as possible? Instead, can you create a dialogue to openly discuss failures without a sense of being punitive, and can you glean information that can help you next time? Can you help your people get a Can-Do attitude?



Step 4: Design and Execute with Sustainability in Mind

(key in Experimentation, Commercialization, and Diffusion/Implementation)

I’m all about the green movement, but that’s not the type of sustainability to which I’m referring. What I mean here is to understand the intended duration of an implemented innovation. In academia, I believe we are still somewhat wed to the era where universities showed success by growing the number of buildings whose systems typically have a 50-60 year lifecycle. For the most part, the innovations that come up at a university won’t be brick and mortar and may only be relevant for 2-3 years. That’s OK, but you should enter the process with some idea of how long something will be relevant. This will guide how much resource you expend in the later stages of the innovation process where you scale up to production.

This will also impact your speed and time to market. Is it more important to get something done quickly, be first, and iterate if you need to?  Or, is it more important to be right when you get to market? The answer will vary by case, but clearly last to market with a miss is the worst option!

When you create something, are you deliberate in understanding it’s term of relevance? Does your idea come with planned obsolescence or do you expect to maintain it forever? If it is a service, do those using it understand that it will be going away at some point?

Step 5: Implement a Reward System

(key across ALL phases)

This, I believe, is the most crucial part of creating an innovation culture. If the reward incentive is strong enough, people will make it through most any challenge. As you move to execute innovation, successful behavior change targets should be selective, rewarded, and modeled (Recardo, 2011). Rewarding and highlighting the desired behavior will help set the culture much faster than just talking about what you want. With budgets tighter and specific rules in place for certain types of funding sources, this can be difficult to accomplish, but remember it’s not always money people are after. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and safety are taken care of, people need love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization too! Think about these things in terms of your reward structure.

Innovators do things because they see the world as it could be, but, as a leader, you  must own a great deal of responsibility by sensing and responding to the environment, managing, and sustaining behaviors towards a goal. While the stewardship for applying and increasing these attributes for an organization rests with management, the people closest to the problems and frustrations can be a great source of innovation and competitive advantage (Amiri, 2010) for the university. Technology can be a great part of your competitive strategy, but long term, sustainable competitive advantage from comes from people who will continually innovate and keep you relevant. Make sure you protect your most valuable asset.

Do you know what motivates your people? Have you asked them?

Getting the Points Across Through a Team-Building Exercise

I just had my all staff meeting where I wanted to get this conversation started and have people thinking on how THEY participate as innovators at every level. We did an exercise where I gave them a folder with 8 pieces of construction paper, some masking tape, a drinking straw, some markers, and some paper clips. They had 20 minutes to build the tallest structure in teams. I got the idea from a class that I had taken, but the gist of it is here, at the TeamPedia website as well. That site looks interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to look around a lot.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: a tall structure

It was fun to watch as some began building without discussion; some began probing me to find the boundaries of what they could use, and then actively pushing and crossing those boundaries; and some were really worried about their design being copied. At the end of the exercise each placed their project on a judging table where they presented their team name, a little about they went about the project, and any special features. We looked at height, then I added two “sustainability” challenges, which consisted of a fan at the other end of table to simulate high winds and me rocking the table to simulate a tremor.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about the points mentioned above and how each and everyone of them could be innovators at any level across the university. Everyone had the same materials, but each team had a different take on the design and implementation. The event got pretty good feedback and was certainly better than a death-by-PowerPoint meeting!


Amiri, A. N. (2010). Increasing the Intellectual Capital in Organization : Examining the Role of Organizational Learning. European Journal of Social Sciences, 14(1), 98-109.

Desouza, K. C., Dombrowski, C., Awazu, Y., Baloh, P., Papagari, S., Jha, S., & Kim, J. Y. (2009). Crafting organizational innovation processes. Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 11(1), 6–33.

Recardo, R. J. (2011). Taking a fast-cycle approach to align organizational culture with business plans. Global Business and Organizational Excellence, 30(3), 32–40.

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Faculty IT Choices: Walled Garden v the Wild West

I work in IT in a university environment, and one of the byproducts of this is that I get a lot of questions. Some want help with their email or printer. Some want me to predict the future so they can know timing for buying products or stocks. Some people want to vent their cosmic frustration at the pace of change, and how this impacts their personal lives.

At this point in my career, my ability to help with specific technical problems is diminishing, though I will valiantly try for my wife and parents. If I were great at predicting the future, I’d be rich, retired and contributing more to the community. But in each of these situations I can listen and attempt to refer to sources that can be more helpful. While I have no direct control over the cosmos’ plot to frustrate you through technology, I am attempting to help out with this on a small scale at Miami.

Diffusion of Innovations

Roger's diffusion of innovation curve

Schools don’t just hand out PhDs left and right. There is rigor, effort, and time involved. Faculty are bright people, especially in their own field. Some love technology, some use it as a tool, and some avoid it like it would give them leprosy. It’s a bell shaped curve, with the majority just wanting to use it as a tool. Over the past couple of years, there has been a pattern that has emerged to me that the great middle majority of faculty are put off by the sheer volume of technical change and possibilities.

Out of gas!

This isn’t solely in a university setting, and it’s not solely in the realm of technology. Too many choices leads to spending a lot of precious and finite cognitive energy on things that may not matter. This can lead to anxiety and less happiness overall. You can only think about so many things, and then you’re out of juice. If you waste your mental energy thinking about the best possible paper plates out of the 40+ options that are out there, you probably won’t get to think about something else that may be more critical. So, where any choice will probably be OK, or at worst will be short lived, especially where you can pick again, then just make a quick decision and feel good about it. 

Let’s get back to IT at a university.

Unless you are teaching in technology or are in the technology innovators category, chances are you need or want to use technology to achieve some outcome like learning objectives, a report with graphs using specific data, etc. If you are busy keeping up with or contributing to the specific changes in your field, how do you have the time to keep up with the tidal flow of technology choices? Chances are you use what you’re used to, what your peers are using, or what you hear about from students from other classes.

The signal to noise ratio is pretty high on technology choices. I must confess that it’s tough even for me, and staying abreast of trends is part of my life’s work. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t know what to do with Google +. I have an account, but I don’t have any more energy to give to social networks. Facebook is exhausting and annoying to me, but it’s a great way to have perpetual virtual class reunions and to share photos of our kids with a lot of interested people. I’m invested; my crowd is invested. As long as the annoyances of Facebook are less than the energy to change, then I’m a Facebook user. Yes, this is the technology equivalent of Sansabelt slacks, a camp shirt, and some beige Rockports (sorry Dad!), but I am OK with this.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

The essence of what I’ve distilled from my conversations with faculty over the past year or two is as follows:

  1. Lower the threshold for the technophobic to try technology, but don’t expect much
  2. Provide a couple of well-supported options for the large majority who are comfortable using–don’t hate or love– technology
  3. Give the innovators room to explore, but make sure they know the regulatory boundaries so as not to expose them or the institution to excessive liability

Walled Garden: a curated, manicured experience

My attempt to do this is a walled garden strategy. Let’s have a curated approach where there are a couple of ways to accomplish something. You can talk to IT staff or peers and explain what you’re trying to do, and we can give you a couple of options, with pros and cons, to try to see if it fits your needs. We can give you rich support with these options to get you started and while you use them. Maybe a couple of choices that fit the masses, but not the pantheon of possibilities. You are safe as long as you are here. Maybe a rose will prick your finger now and again, but mostly you will be delighted as we weed, tend, and cater to you. Oh, but don’t think that the walled garden is a time capsule or vacuum. It’s living and dynamic. Things will have to leave to make room for those newfangled innovations from the Wild Westerners below. We will add and remove things with as little disruption and as much buffer as possible, but there will always be some activity going on.

Welcome to the Wild West

Ah, but gardens are for sissies who want to have tea parties. You are no mere user of commonplace technology and you sure don’t like boundaries. You define the bleeding edge of technology. If it’s not beta–not the comfy 3 year old Google style betas, but real RAW betas that are still fluid from nightly builds– then you probably aren’t interested.


You want the Wild West, not some spoon-fed thing from the out of touch bureaucrats from IT-land. You are waiting for me to try to stop you with my two primary weapons of inertia: policy and process. You are ready to bravely pick up the standard of academic freedom.

Wait! I don’t want to stop you. Have at it.

Here my job is to make sure you know about FERPA (student privacy), HIPPA (patient privacy), ITAR/EAR (export control regulations), etc. Go crazy! But don’t incur liability for the university or yourself. Some of these things can land you in jail and cause reputational damage to your institution. Nobody wants that!

Oh, just so you know: in the Wild West there is very little support, but lots of encouragement! You are likely to try a lot of things and quit a lot of things, which is fantastic, and the way innovation should work. It’s just too costly for us to keep up with you and the rest of the innovators with rich support. We’re keeping that Walled Garden up.

But don’t AT ALL mistake the inability to give you copious support with lack of interest. At some level we in IT are geeks too and wish we had more time to experiment. The walled garden is nice and necessary, but sometimes boring. We may want to help as time allows, but the walled garden is our first priority, so we may have to leave you hanging to take care of that. We’re sad too.

We also have a fundamental need to keep an eye on the Wild West. As time progresses, today’s Wild West innovation will need to be in the Walled Garden, so we need to understand how things will scale and need to be supported. Also, at some point and time, you may want to find your way back to the walled garden to rest. We can help guide you back.

My role as an IT leader is to create an organizational culture that richly supports and serves as a guide to academic and research needs of the faculty and the business needs of the staff, but also facilitates the innovators and help to bring some of their solutions back to the walled garden so as to create a dynamic environment that captures the best part of innovation without getting caught in an inefficient churn.

You can reduce your cognitive demand on the vast array of technology choices by being in the walled garden and save your energy for your classes or research, or you can be a pioneer with the associated wagon ruts. I need to be able to work with you either way, but the choice is yours. But it’s easy to change your mind, so don’t think about it too much!

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